The Risen, book three of The Darkest Hand trilogy, published by Duckworth Overlook. It’s 1917. World War One is entering its most terrible phase of the conflict, deadlock and death on three fronts. Petrograd is burning in the fires of Russian revolution and the Antichrist is making his final ascent towards ultimate power. The only person able to stop him is Inquisitor Poldek Tacit. But where is the greatest, and most unhinged, of Inquisitors?
Eleven years old, sitting in one of the school class rooms during break time (when I should have been outside) reading James Herbert's The Rats, absolutely terrified, feeling rather naughty, but also totally and utterly absorbed by it.
For readers new to horror which 3 books would you recommend they start with?
The Woman in Black, to experience what truly great, beautifully written, ghost stories can be like.
Day of the Triffids, to experience the utter desperation of helpless and hopelessness, when the servants turn against their masters and the world is on its side.
The Exorcist, to experience walking in the domain of the devil and have him stare into your soul.
Do you have a favourite horror sub-genre, and why?
Psychological horror. For me, the best horror is when you examine the depths into which every person can fall due to past experiences, momentary fear or mental illness. Claws, teeth and gratuitous knife horror are all very well, but horror which can’t quite be quantified, the idea of violence devouring someone, anyone, at anytime, and making them act like a madman, that’s the sort of horror that really unsettles me. The horror of the mundane. The horror of the everyday, turned upside down.
Most terrifying book you’ve ever read.
The Black Cat, by Edgar Alan Poe. A terrifying glimpse into the world of madness and its repercussions, a world lying just beyond the edge of the Abyss on which we all precariously stand.
Your favourite Stephen King book.
The Shining. The horror starts so small, eventually to end as large as Overlook Hotel - and be the hotel itself!
New horror authors you’d recommend.
David Moody’s not particularly new, but I’m new to him and his first book Hateris utterly brilliant. An unputdownable thrill ride. There’s something genuinely terrifying when horror is set within the everyday boredom of Harvester restaurants and council offices.
Who do you consider the King and Queen of horror fiction?
Edgar Alan Poe and Mary Shelley. They were the first and they remain the benchmark.
Your favourite horror film (adapted from a book) & why?
Jaws. It’s one of those rare times when the film is so much better than the book.
Horror book that you’d like to see adapted to film & why?
Wytches, the graphic novel by Scott Synder. I have shivers just thinking about this book. It’s so wonderfully simple and so hideously malevolent, underpinned with such a great cast of very normal, but deeply troubled, characters. It will eventually be made into film, or perhaps one of those big budget TV series, of that I have no doubt.
Best horror TV?
The Singing Ringing Tree - the East German TV series from 1957! My God! That whole series haunted my childhood for years. The vibrant colours. The claustrophobic sets.The endless cold cruelty of it. Even now I can’t think of the dwarf or the giant fish without retreating a little into myself.
Did you write in other genres or straight to horror?
I started off writing fantasy - badly. I loved Tolkien, and wanted to be his successor. So, basically, I wrote rip off Tolkien stories for years, every one of them terrible, all of them poor shadows of the master. Eventually, when I grew up and started finding my voice, and as I began experiencing the real world, I began taking the fantastical elements in my head and working into them my own experiences and opinions, fears and thoughts of real world problems and events, past and present. And, of course, horror is the perfect platform to ruminate and give voice to real world concerns, in a way which makes them so much more accessible to the reader.
Tell us briefly about your route to being published
In 2012 I took a trip to France, visiting the trenches on the trail of two great uncles who fought out there in the Great War. It was an incredible journey, really moving and inspirational and I just felt I had to write about the experience. I would read bits and pieces of the original rather dry, mainstream and historical manuscript to my family until my youngest son, in his brutal honesty, told me that what I had written was ‘boring'. So, rather pissed off, I asked him what he would write a book about and he immediately replied, "World War One and werewolves" and a light came on in my head and after that I was off and running!
Four months later I sent my first draft to LAW, the prestigious London literary agency, who represent the likes of Andy McNab, Kate Mosse, Sophie Kinsella, Simon Toyne, amongst many others, and they hated it! But, they liked how I wrote and sent back an A4 page of suggestions. Well, that sort of feedback is a manna from heaven for a budding author. So I reworked the entire manuscript in three months based on these comments, sent it back to them, totally changed, and they signed me up!
We went to market at the start of 2014 and Duckworth Overlook, they of World War Z fame, offered on it a few months later, giving me a three book deal on the strength of the first book - which eventually became The Darkest Hand trilogy. I realise now how quick it all happened, and how lucky I was.
Tell us about your fans
Extremely enthusiastic and extremely varied! My books are quite hard to pin down in terms of what they are, because they’re a diverse mix of horror, fantasy and historical fiction, and so my readers are equally diverse. But they all love a good story, told in a vibrant, detailed and moving fashion, which I hope I have done. And they love sharing their opinions on the books, the characters and how they wanted things to turn out with them!
Horror doesn’t seem to be as well respected as other genres of fiction. Why do you think that is?
Actually, I do think it's respected, but just not universally embraced. After all, Stephen King, the modern master of horror, is loved utterly, but sadly he is one of few. In my opinion, it comes down to the fact that publishers need to sell books and so categorising a horror book as a thriller is much more likely to sell serious units than if you market it as a horror - just because the majority of buying public think of ‘horror’ and then think ‘torrents of blood and guts’ and assume they won’t like it. For example, Silence of the Lambs is a horror, but Thomas Harris’ book was marketed as a thriller. Jo Nesbo’s books are truly horrific, but they are sold as thrillers, never ever as horror. Education is needed for the buying public and (this is key) the horror section needs to be introduced back into bookshops, incorporating classics such as Silence of the Lambs and John Fowles' The Collector, so readers (and the publishers) are assured that the horror genre is full of wonderful inspiring and high brow literature, not just slashers and pages of pain! Publishers feel (probably rightly) that horror scares the average person (pardon the pun) and that the title of ‘horror’ suggests most wont like it, when actually the majority of readers LOVE a bit of gore in their books!
Do you think horror is ready for a renaissance?
Absolutely! The genre of horror is the perfect vehicle to reflect our world and, let’s be honest, between petty wars, global warming, racial and religious division and crazy politicians, our world at the moment is fairly horrific. The time is nigh!
Tips for new writers of horror fiction.
Avoid cliches. Don’t reach for the axe to chop off someone’s legs, when reaching for something in their past might incapacitate them far more painfully and effectively. Horror gives the writer such a wonderful canvas upon which to paint their terrible world, but it’s easy to rely on the old faithfuls of berserk ex-partners and mask clad psychos to deliver the bad news. Don’t use the usual expected themes and outcomes to write scenes and get yourself out of painted corners. Be unique. Be novel. Be different. Push yourself creatively and aspirationally. Remember, horror mirrors real life fears. Keep your eyes open, drink in the horrors around you and accentuate them on your page. And, of course, enjoy it! Writing horror is such an unbridled joy.
Do you believe in evil?
Oh, without doubt. The father of a good friend of mine was a catholic priest in Scotland. One of his tasks was to visit the prisoners in HMP Barlinnie, in Glasgow. On one visit he attended to one of the inmates in his cell, a murderer. Years later, over a cold beer or two, he told his son, my friend, straight faced, "I was once in the presence of true evil. And in that moment my faith was renewed.” His son asked, “But dad, how was your faith renewed when you felt such evil?” His father replied, deathly serious, “Because in that cell, I sat with the devil."
What scares you?
Our current crop of politicians. No longer are they working for us and the betterment of mankind, but for their corporate sponsors and benefactors.
3 most scary words in English language?
Sepulchral. Loathsome. Extinction.
Do you celebrate Halloween?
I used to, but now that my kids are too old to dress up and scare the neighbours, I celebrate horror in a different way - entrenched in my writing cell, with the lights turned right down and horrible ideas flowing out through the end of my pen.